Variable fonts

I'd like to discuss the subject of Variable fonts. Are we sure they are the future, or is it just something we are trying to push on the market, without the customers really wanting/needing it? I've spoken to a number of graphic designers who say they don't want to drag sliders when setting type, they want pre-made weights. Myself, I see each weight as a "work of applied art" (perhaps a bit pretentious), carefully selected and refined, rather than a font being some kind of interactive software.


  • Thanks, a lot of good thoughts there!
  • @Cory Maylett
    Mostly agree, but I don't think any foundry offers a variable version separate from (and cheaper than) the whole family. How I offer it, and most foundries that I know of too, is that anybody who buys the whole family also gets a copy of the variable font along with all the static files.
  • How many buy entire families versus a limited number of styles?

    Of the latter, how many might be willing to pay a bit more (vs $ x N styles) to get a variable font? Is there a model here that might lead to net increase in revenue?

    (Not a rhetorical question: I don’t make or sell fonts, so don’t have any first hand knowledge on this.)
  • @Matthijs Herzberg, I've handled my variable fonts like you. When someone buys the entire family, I include the variable font as an incentive. When the subject came up in a previous thread, I remember someone saying they offered their variable fonts separately at a discount from the full family. How common this is, I don't know. I haven't checked. I've considered doing the same, however.

    I suspect that, as @Peter Constable mentioned, there could be a viable market in selling variable fonts at a bit of a discount to people who would usually only pick and choose the fonts they needed from a larger family. I'm only speculating, though.
  • Consider also that in addition to whatever the price is for a variable font, there is also the cost of uneven and buggy support by apps and operating systems compared to nearly universal support of static fonts.
  • I think there are two different pricing issues:
    - what to charge if one sells ONLY the variable version
    - what to charge if one sells BOTH variable and non-variable versions of the same family

    In the former case, one likely wants to price in a way that makes the variable font attractive to those who don’t want to pay the full-family price. Also, probably to maximize revenue (or profit, which is a bit more tricky, but the marginal cost of additional units sold is low, aside from support costs.
  • @Thomas Phinney I've been thinking about this a lot lately.  I think one could provide variable fonts in web only format and basically charge the same amount as if it was a full set of single style instances.  I think value is in the flexibility for the platform, not some perceived financial savings.  At least for now, variable is very much not consumer grade and most businesses are only motivated by costs when they pile up. Looking at how most foundries price web embedding, I think the savings wouldn't be big enough to market variable that way.
  • Even so, I think there's a future for variable fonts for the simple reason that most type designers rely on interpolation to create intermediate weights anyway. As long as they're doing that, it's sort of a no-brainer to save out a variable font too, even if they're not widely used.
    It’s worth clarifying here: mastering any professional-grade font for use in the modern software environment is a highly-skilled, technical process. It is simply not true to just “save out” a font, especially not VF’s. The current VF mastering process is extremely brittle, highly specific and still in flux.

  • Cory MaylettCory Maylett Posts: 245
    edited February 2022
    @Kris Sowersby , Yes, high-quality font creation is "a highly-skilled and technical process." However, when intermediate widths and weights are interpolated, the vast majority of the work is already in place for producing a variable font.

    There can be endless tweaks to both the static and variable versions for high-quality work — some typeface designs more than others. But my point was the relative ease of producing a variable font from interpolation is something of a no-brainer for most, which I suggested might help ensure the continuation and eventual success of variable fonts.

    I don't think we disagree, however, that the highest-quality work isn't quite that simple. Perhaps you could provide some examples of how that's the case. I'm always eager to learn. As I mentioned, I'm primarily an art director who uses type. Designing type and building fonts is an increasingly serious after-hours thing for me, so more information is always welcome.
  • Our experience is that the production of variable fonts can often be *a lot* more laborious than producing the same family as a range of static fonts.

    In static fonts everything can be controlled without having to worry about point compatibility. In order to have that compatibility – for both on-curve points AND off-curve points AND anchor positions AND kerning – between all masters can be a real pain if you need to make sure that every instance looks good. There is no quick fix possible by just editing an instance.

    In variable fonts you often end up having to make more glyphs because all variation alternates need to be included in all masters. And those glyphs need to be kerned, hinted, etc.

  • I think it's a mistake to assume that all purchasers of variable fonts are wanting "the entire family". They may only want a few custom styles, for example.

    This may be true, but if you are selling a variable font, they are getting the whole family no matter their needs, right? I'm intrigued with how you approach the subject, and your observations on the non-monetary "price" paid for using variable fonts is certainly correct. Do you often find users looking for a specific instance? I never see them used in my fonts, but hey, maybe that's because I sell variable fonts a bit more conservatively.
  • I downloaded a variable Google font to test (Inter). When I went about changing the text to (Inter) I saw that there were all the unique weights in the font menu like: regular, medium, bold, and italics, etc. Is that how variable fonts appear on mac computers? I assumed I was going to see one font and I'd have to use the slider tool to adjust the weight. I really like seeing all of the standard weights by name. And I was glad that the italics were included. Are italics normally included in a variable font? If that is how variable fonts work I'd be willing to buy them. I normally work in Adobe Illustrator and all the tricks and shortcuts I use worked with this variable font.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,128
    With your strategy Mark, VF will erode the price of buying a complete family, in a downward spiral. Purchases will migrate to the cheaper VF.

    Just as OpenType fonts reduced the “price per glyph”, VF will reduce the “price per weight”. But perhaps the best metric for us is “price per master”. 
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,704
    Nick, is that a problem, and if so, why?

    Purchases are presumably also migrating to the VF from individual styles.
  • @James Bridges — Look up "named instances" for insight into how/which weights appear in application font menus.

  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,940
    @James Bridges as Marc indicates, this is related to named instances in the variable font. The brief summary is that the OT variable font format is designed to be able to provide an arbitrary number of named instances within the design space that will behave like non-variable fonts in software without a specific variable UI (or in addition to the variable UI). So what you are seeing in the font menu are those variable instances that the font maker has named (and in some cases style-linked, e.g. regular->bold, roman-> italic).

    For a general overview of variable fonts and how they work, my 2016 article may still be useful.
  • Cory MaylettCory Maylett Posts: 245
    edited March 2022
    @James Bridges, in addition to what Marc and John mentioned, including italics in a variable font is possible, but separate italic variable fonts are more common.

    One reason for this is that significant differences exist between the italic and roman designs (number and position of anchor points and unique glyph designs) that make it impractical to interpolate them without many workarounds, design compromises, and intermediate instances. A simple slanted axis would be easy enough, but not a more traditional custom-designed italic.

    Even with separate variable roman and italic fonts in the same typeface, both will appear together in a Mac's font list (you specifically asked about Macs). But the roman and italic will have separate sliders.
  • Michael RafailykMichael Rafailyk Posts: 141
    edited October 2022
    ... including italics in a variable font is possible, but separate italic variable fonts are more common.
    That's interesting how to properly name the family name field in a separated roman and italic variable font files to make them work together in a font menu? Will the style linking work between them?
    Even with separate variable roman and italic fonts in the same typeface, both will appear together in a Mac's font list (you specifically asked about Macs). But the roman and italic will have separate sliders.
    Does it mean the family name could be the same for both files? And is it works on Windows too?
  • To make it work, the separate roman and italic variable fonts need to have the same font family name, but different style names for the named instances, and different elided fallback names. The fonts also need axis values (that correspond with the named instances) along with appropriate style linking, and an axis value for the "global" italic axis. Then it works fine in both Windows and Mac environments.

  • @Erwin Denissen
    Thank you for the details. I understand, instances (and masters) should be linked properly italic to roman as a family, and the axes should be equal, even on different variable fonts, of course.
    ... and an axis value for the "global" italic axis
    Not sure I understand this part right, please correct me if I'm wrong.
    For example, if the both files have three axes (Weight, X-height, Contrast), and ... I need to add an additional (fake) Italic axis (with 0 for roman and 1 for italic) to the both files, even if the lowercase have a different construction? Does it needed for compatibility?
  • To make the two variable fonts work as one family, you need to include information about the differences between them. In this case the italic axis is the missing link, so you will need to include it in the fonts. A global axis is an axis that is not used within the masters and interpolation.

    In FontCreator the settings for such roman variable font might look like:

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